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What is a Bottle Episode and Why Do They Get Made?

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We either love ’em or hate ’em. These are the episodes within a televisions series where our characters somehow find themselves stuck in an elevator or locked in a broom closet or whatever confined space the showrunner can come up with. And most often these episodes have nothing to do with the serialized story arc of the series but convey a contained narrative within its time slot. WHY DO THEY DO THIS? While it  may be easy to accuse the showrunner and producers are just being lazy, the more likely reason for these contained episodes is usually due to a lack of money.  So here’s how it works: As you know television shows are divided into seasons, and each season has its own individual budget. The bulk of that money is spent on the season’s tent pole episodes, i.e. the season premiere, the season finale and any episode that requires a top-dollar guest star, exotic locale, or extensive special effects. Which means that at some point in the season, a showrunner is going to be scrambling to come up with an idea that can be shot on the cheap in order to fill out the episode order from the network but still remain within budget for the entire season. Cue “the bottle episode.”

The term “bottle episode” comes from the original 1960s-era Star Trek where the cast and crew members used the phrase “ship in a bottle episode” to describe episodes that took place only on board the Star Trek enterprise.

Here are some great examples of bottle episodes:

“Fly” – BREAKING BAD / S3Ep10

It’s the BREAKING BAD’s typical breakneck speed that makes “Fly” such a standout episode. Tensions are running high between meth-makers Walter and Jesse, and both of them are keeping secrets. When a fly finds its way into the lab, Walter—sleep-deprived and already teetering on the edge—sets about killing it to avoid any contamination. But this sucker won’t die and the ceilings in that meth lab are high. (No pun intended.) As Jesse looks on and eventually assists Walter in his mission, their inner turmoil plays out in subtle yet gripping ways, both in their dialogue and actions. That virtually every second of the episode’s 47 minutes happens in one location with just the two leading actors makes it a perfect example of television at its barest. That they hired moviemaker Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) to direct the episode makes it truly cinematic.

 

“Cooperative Calligraphy” – COMMUNITY / S2Ep08

As out there as some of its plotlines may stray, Community has succeeded in becoming one of television’s most self-aware shows. The cast and crew seem to revel in the fact that they’re still on the air (and with good reason, as they’ve been on the scheduling chopping block since the show’s debut). Their boldest move yet may have been “Cooperative Calligraphy,” which is best described as a bottle episode about bottle episodes. As the study group of misfit co-eds packs up their belongings to depart for an on-campus puppy parade, Annie realizes that yet another one of her precious pens has gone missing and insists that no one will leave the room until she uncovers the culprit. Minutes later, Abed realizes what is happening and declares, “I hate bottle episodes. They’re wall-to-wall facial expressions and emotional nuance. I might as well sit in a corner with a bucket on my head.” As the episode continues to unfold, the classmates learn more than they needed to know about each other—like that Abed keeps track of the menstrual cycles of the female group members—and do their best to stay true to Abed’s description of what a bottle episode looks like.

 

“The Chinese Restaurant” – SEINFELD / S2Ep06

 

“Pine Barrens” – THE SOPRANOS / S3Ep11

Note to the networks: Indie film directors make fantastic bottle episode directors. Before he became a series regular in season five, Steve Buscemi directed what is arguably one of The Sopranos’ single best episodes: “Pine Barrens.” Though it’s not a one-location episode, the bulk of the action centers on Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods after an attempt to collect a debt from a Russian mobster goes horribly wrong. Totally unprepared for facing the elements, right down to their unlined leather jackets, the duo must overcome bad cell phone reception and the possibility that there’s a highly-skilled solider attempting to hunt them down to find their way out of the forest (or at least lead mob boss Tony Soprano to them for rescuing). Paulie’s relationship to Christopher was always one of the show’s most interesting, alternating between fatherly and competitive. This episode forces them to confront their issues head-on, in a language and with a humor that is completely their own.

 

“The Conversation” – MAD ABOUT YOU / S6Ep9

Though it aired for seven seasons, Mad About You—starring Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt as married couple Paul and Jamie Buchman—has been largely forgotten. Which is unfortunate, considering that it often pushed the conventions of typical sitcom-making. In the show’s sixth season, director Gordon Hunt channeled his inner Ingmar Bergman to do the unthinkable: drop a camera on the floor of the Buchmans’ apartment and leave it there. For the entire show. Whether the actors were in the shot or not. The only image that stays constant is the door of their baby daughter Mabel’s room, as they attempt to let her cry herself to sleep, leaving the audio to drive the narrative. The result is a 20-minute conversation filmed in one take that was broadcast uninterrupted so as not to lose the flow.

 

“Two’s a Crowd” – ALL IN THE FAMILY / S8Ep19

Like so many other sitcoms of its time period, this late-season episode of All in the Family used the “locked together in a room” device as its setup. But where it stands out among the show’s nine seasons is in its humanization of the irascible Archie Bunker. When Archie and his son-in-law Mike accidentally lock themselves in the storeroom of a bar, they decide to pass the time by depleting the supply of alcohol that surrounds them. After a few drinks too many, Archie talks about his difficult upbringing, complete with an abusive father. Archie’s monologue on his life—and why he is the man he is—is a genuinely moving piece of drama in an otherwise comedic series that brings the show’s two male leads closer together (even if Archie doesn’t remember it when he wakes up).

As seen on MentalFloss.com

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